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Blowing in the wind

October 9, 2009

Eager to be on the cutting edge of alternate energy, North Carolina has concluded a study looking at the efficacy of wind power in the state.  As it turns out, much of the North Carolina coast is unfit for large scale wind production, which sounds strange coming from the state who’s epic winds drew flight pioneers and wind enthusiasts Orville and Wilbur Wright to run their famous powered flight experiments.  A University of North Carolina study found that:

Large areas of the Pamlico Sound and some parts of the coastal ocean are incompatible with wind turbines because of inlets, navigation corridors, commercial fishing, radar, oyster reef sanctuaries, seagrass beds, reef habitats, shipwrecks, beach nourishment-quality sand deposits, and military ordinance.

Turns out the Outer Banks are important for lots of different reasons, but we already knew that.  The best area for industrial wind turbines in the state is in the Buxton area, which if you can visualize a map, is on the hook where the barrier islands turn west, on the easternmost part of Hatteras Island.  Which, incidentally, is ground zero for another big environmental issue.

I’d go on record, such that it matters, as generally supporting wind power.  Though I think global warming concerns pales in comparison to habitat and biodiversity issues, which sadly become sacrificed on the all-encompassing alter of climate change with regard to public policy, taking measures to reduce our nation’s need for foreign sources of energy is a clearly smart thing to do from not only a geopolitical point of view, but to reduce the environmental impact that is a byproduct of fossil fuel exploration, transportation and consumption.

There is a concern, of course, for birders too.  Not least of which is the design of the wind turbines, the traditional three prop towers, has been proven to be incredibly dangerous to birds, particularly migrating birds at night and foraging raptors during the day.  This is particularly disturbing as the same open windswept areas targeted by wind developers are typically areas of high raptor diversity and numbers.  From a recent article from the online Examiner newspaper:

The towers in these images are Prop Turbines and when the wind is blowing, their blade tips spin at over 200 miles per hour,” explains Jim Wiegand, graduate Berkley University in California, where wind farms are being built with terrifying speed. “If you were an Eagle or an Owl hunting for a meal or any bird trying to fly over the hill, imagine having to navigate these spinning blades every day. This is just one of hundreds of Wind farms planned for America. It has been running for over 25 years. During that time over 30,000 birds of prey have died trying to fly through this gauntlet of spinning blades. Some estimate the mortality higher at 40,000. Over 1000 of these fatalities have been Golden Eagles

Vertical Shaft Generator, from wikipedia

Vertical Shaft Generator, from wikipedia

The problem with tri-propped windmills is that when the props are moving, they are essentially invisible to birds once they’re within 80 ft of the windmill itself.  The birds will fly right into the rapidly spinning props without even realizing they are a danger.  Fortunately, there are alternate wind generators that not are not only more visible to birds in the area, but more efficient generators of energy besides.  These vertical shaft generators, which employ a rotating cylinder, don’t need to waste energy turning to face the wind and can even be enclosed in a protective cage without diminishing their efficiency.  It sounds like a win-win, right?  A more efficient wind generator that protects raptors and migrating birds seems like it would be the ideal instrument to usher in a more responsible energy future.  But sadly, entrenched interests in the wind energy market are preventing this type of generator for gaining a foothold, even going so far as to try to purchase patents for alternate designs in an attempt to squelch their development.

The benefit for vertical shaft generators is obvious on the wide open plains where raptors are common, but in Pamlico Sound where the North Carolina generators are likely to be built, the impact is less clear.  But one only has to watch the Pelicans and Osprey fishing in the sound to see what’s at stake here.  To witness the sound swarming with pelagic species following a tropical storm landfall.  The Outer Banks are rightly considered one of the state’s finest birding locales and North Carolina, by virtue of its nascent wind energy program, has an opportunity to make the right decision for its birds.

Admittedly that’s a hard sell these days on the Outer Banks.  But once people accept the idea of wind energy on the sound, the pragmatists may well win out to make the case for the most efficient means of harnessing that energy.  The state is rushing ahead with a pilot study that includes building three demonstration turbines in the sound.  It remains to be seen whether one will be a vertical style, but one can hope.

  1. October 10, 2009 9:30 pm

    I hadn’t seen the design of the vertical generators before. I have often wondered about alternate ways to harness wind energy aside from the big three-blade turbines. I would especially like to see some small-scale solutions that would allow towns, companies, or even individuals to generate some power from wind without needing to resort to these massive wind farms. Of course, the big power companies would not like that, so it probably won’t become widespread.

  2. October 28, 2009 3:16 pm

    Hi Nate,
    I enjoyed your post and glad to learn about these vertical shaft generators.

    Back in September, I did a post (click on my name for link) on wind farms and bird mortality, introducing a case study in Texas where radar technology is employed to detect oncoming bird flocks, and if so, shuts down wind turbines before impact.

    As always, the case gets more complicated as you get into it. It MAY be possible to site a properly wind farm within a flyway — that is, in a wide flyway, there may be certain areas that less used by birds than others. Only major pre-construction studies that look at bird migration patterns can really determine this.

    One important takeaway is that pre-construction studies should be demanded by the birding community whenever wind farm projects are proposed.

    Good luck with your situation. The Outer Banks are a very special place thanks in no small part to the nature it holds.


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